On my seventh night in New York City I ended up, almost accidentally, living out a fantasy of mine — mingling with writers and photographers, in an expensive Upper West Side apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows, drinking a hundred-dollar bottle of wine.
Some details were different, however. A rainbow of throw pillows covered half the main room and the woman I was talking to was naked and I was in my underwear.
It was my first, and so far only, naked party, and it was the beginning of the end of a thirty-year era of rather severe self-consciousness. I’d always had a burning fear of the judgments of others. In particular, I couldn’t bear the thought of someone else seeing me as bad or wrong. I just couldn’t let it happen, and unconsciously designed a life that minimized that risk, which means it minimized interactions with other people.
This self consciousness declined very slowly throughout my late twenties, and after my trip to New York it began to fall away in large chunks and now I feel very little self-consciousness. In the big picture, I know that my relatively sudden shedding of self-worry has come from a gradual accumulation of insights. By the time of the trip, I had learned a little too much about the world and myself to continue to be so afraid of both.
But insight alone is often not enough. Life has to make its principles clear by demonstrating them to you in real time. An unfamiliar experience must act as a catalyst, illuminating your accumulated insights and leaving you with a new and unfamiliar sense of yourself. When you notice that the feeling of being you is an easier and more natural feeling than it used to be, you know you have grown.
In the case of my graduation from self-consciousness I know that the catalyst for the final untangling began at the naked party in Manhattan.
“It’s not a sex party,” my friend explained, “It’s a naked party, but sexual things may happen.” He forwarded an email from the host that outlined the rules: Nobody has to do anything they don’t want to do, you can leave any time, if you choose to stay past 11 you must at least be down to your underwear. This is not an orgy.
Agreeing to go was quite out-of-character for me. I’d always had a policy of declining anything that entailed any risk of awkwardness. It turned out to be the most accepting atmosphere I think I’d ever been in. It felt totally okay to be who I was and act how I acted, and it felt like it had always been that way. The world seemed to get bigger. There were more places I could go. I realized I could talk to anyone, and that this had always been true.
The party wasn’t the sole catalyst for my movement away from self-consciousness. New York itself does this. It’s a city full of eccentrics and experimenters. Unconventional Americans from conventional midwestern cities migrate there to live out their eccentricities. First-time visitors might feel a profound absence of self-consciousness in the streets of Manhattan, a place where you quickly realize that strangers are far too busy to waste a moment judging you for your quirks. They’ve seen it all anyway.
This feeling was new to me. It would be another six months or so before I felt that relaxedness all the time, but considering how many years of uptight habits that had to unravel during that period, it felt like I was becoming freer every day.
I want other people to experience a drastic loss of self-consciousness too, but I can’t give you a naked party, not that it’s going to be the right catalyst for everyone. A novel event like that can create such a pivotal change only when certain insights have already been realized. The discussion about how to get over self-consciousness is much larger than a single blog post — even a long one like this one — but I can at least plant what I think are the most vital seeds:
1) Stop judging others
The times in my life I’ve been most self-conscious have been the times I’ve been most judgmental of others. These two qualities seem directly tied to each other, and may even be the same thing. The more agitated I am about the actions and apparent beliefs of other people, the more I feel like they’re all judging me, they’re being unfair.
At least most of the time, the feeling of being judged by others is actually caused by your judging yourself. If you think about it, you can’t actually experience the judgments of others. The only judgmental thoughts you can experience directly are your own. If you often “feel” harsh disapproval from others, I would bet you often disapprove of others with similar harshness. The more accepting you are, the more accepted you feel.
Like I said, for most of my life I couldn’t bear the thought of another person regarding me as bad or wrong. The most efficient way to avoid risking that was to interact with people as little as possible. This becomes a habit. I know now that I was so afraid of appearing bad or wrong because of how intensely I judged others for appearing bad or wrong to me.
I am convinced that for most people, learning to minimize habitual judgments of others is all they need to do to alleviate the bulk of self-consciousness and the pain of worrying what others will think of you. If you put any of these tips into practice, make it this one. It will get you most of the way.
Nonjudgment is a powerful practice for personal transformation, and this becomes self-evident once you begin to experiment with it. It’s a major theme in Eastern philosophy and spiritual practices, but it doesn’t need to be spiritual at all. The best place to learn nonjudgment is through mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation.
2) Hold other people’s freedom of thought as highly as you hold their freedom of speech
Understand that others have every right not to like you, and their reasons are none of your business. Almost everyone recognizes the importance of every individual’s freedom of speech, even if we don’t like what they say. Yet we somehow convince ourselves that it is unacceptable for others to even think badly of us. While there are necessary limitations to freedom of speech, (making threats for example) freedom of thought is inalienable. Others have every right to think whatever they want, and you should respect that to an even greater degree than you do freedom of speech. Nobody owes you explanation or justification for their thoughts. Thoughts do not have to be fair, sensible, or pleasant. Personal thought is utterly private territory.
Furthermore, people don’t choose what thoughts they have. Thoughts happen to us like weather happens to us. Modern neuroscience tells us that we don’t actually have freedom of belief. A person cannot make himself believe whatever he wants — to truly believe something, it must feel true given what he already believes. So the beliefs we end up with are essentially predetermined by outside forces, which means you can’t logically blame people for their beliefs. We can hold people accountable for their actions, but not for their beliefs, because they never chose them. [This is also the tip of a huge discussion. For more, check out The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris]
So resist the temptation to blame your Catholic grandmother for disapproving of your views on sex and relationships. It is not her fault, and it’s probably useless (and rude) to try to change her just so that you can feel like nobody sees any faults in you.
The belief that you ought to worry about (and try to change) what others think requires you to believe that you actually can reliably change the views of another person. In real life this is almost impossible, and so the sooner you recognize that other people’s thoughts are off-limits to you, the sooner you will lose your anxiety about them.
3) Notice your impulse to seek scraps of approval
We all would rather have others laugh when we make a joke, and nod when we make a point. It feels good, and we naturally seek good feelings even if they lead us to bad places. If you get hooked on those little moments of approval, then anxiety can grow around the possibility of not getting them. The more you need approval, even in the smallest doses, the more disapproval hurts, and the more you will interpret it as a sign that there is something wrong with you.
When I grew up I quickly became addicted to regular doses of social approval. I felt that the number of these shows of approval from others (compliments, assurances, laughs and looks of admiration) made a good barometer for whether I was moving towards happiness. Disapproval was a sign that there was something wrong with me and that I need to change what I’m doing — or worse, who I am.
This might make sense if we were all the same person and all valued the same things, but we’re not. There’s no reason to believe your parents’ religion makes sense for you to practice, or that you shouldn’t make art just because your friends don’t get it.
You lose nothing when people don’t laugh at your joke or agree with your point. You stand to lose a lot when when you let your sense of worth depend on it. Habitual approval-seeking behavior is how you become your most awkward, painful self — by bringing visible self-doubt and neediness to every action.
Often the most gratifying achievements in our lives become accessible to us only when we knowingly expose ourselves to the disapproval of others. Still, we all develop a tendency to seek these scraps of approval like breadcrumbs, and if we’re not aware of that tendency, we follow the trail without looking where it’s going. Notice the impulse to reach for these breadcrumbs, and when you do, consciously withdraw your hand. Leave them for the birds.
4) Realize your self-image is not who you are, and that it will always feel at least partly wrong
We all have a self-image at any given moment in which we think about ourselves — a mental impression that represents the person you are right now. But this image is nowhere near enough information to represent a whole person, no matter how attractive or ugly it is. Images are thin and devoid of detail or possibility. Human beings are endlessly complex and dynamic. You can’t know a person by examining a momentary impression of them any more than you can know an entire country by looking at a few photos of it — even though we do it all the time, even to ourselves.
So the figure I see in the mirror, and all the peripheral thoughts that it triggers — how I feel about that guy, what I like about him and don’t like about him, what I expect will happen to him, what I wish had happened to him earlier — all that changes. It can be different at any given time. The impression I have of that image today is different to some degree from any one of the other thousands of impressions I’ve gotten from looking at him over the last thirty years. I find a different self-image every time I look for one, and that means none can be trusted.
Your self-image is constantly changing, always overemphasizing certain traits (usually its imperfections) and leaving out other parts entirely, and it always tries to come off as a reliable assessment of who you are. But it can never represent you accurately, because it’s nothing but a comparatively minuscule ball of interchangeable thoughts about your life.
If you’re not your self-image, who are you then? You are the present-moment experiencer of those thoughts — and everything else in this world. You experience passing self-images in the same way you experience passing weather, passing bodily sensations, passing trends and passers-by on the sidewalk. They drift into your awareness, their appearances changing the whole while, and then they are gone and can only be remembered.
A self-image will always be unacceptable anyway. Because it’s a churning mess of emotionally-backed thoughts, it will always contain at least one aspect that doesn’t sit right with you, so there’s no way to perfect it. Do something to relieve one insecurity and another one pops up. You can spend your whole life trying to rid your self-image of aspects you don’t like and you’ll never get there. It’s designed to let you down and keep you making changes. It’s a treadmill.
Learn to expect it to be what it is: needy and impossible to satisfy, showing a different face to everyone and to every moment — an altogether inadequate representation of who you are. But expect it to be there.
This is a crucial idea. More here.
5) Find the like-minded
This is not a prescription to “stick to your own kind”, or to find an echo chamber where you can’t learn anything new. Rather, it means to find the people out there in the world who love what you love. Sharing a passion with another person lends you a stable source of self-esteem along with a sense of solidarity. Music people, for example, love music, and they also love music people, and specifically they love their love of music. Once you find this level of connection and solidarity with even one other person, approval from people who don’t share those values starts to feel irrelevant.
Often we’re born into families, social circles, cities or even entire societies where the norms don’t feel right to us. Opposing values can lead to interpersonal friction and alienation. Nonjudgment and open-mindedness can go a long way in allowing you to find a sense of belonging even in places where you’re the eccentric one.
But sometimes, if the interpersonal friction is too great, you do need to remove people from your life, or remove yourself from a particular place or social situation. It is entirely possible that no matter how nonjudgmental you become yourself, certain others will always disapprove and say so, and that their company will no longer be worth your time. For example, if your parents are staunch fundamentalists, they may never be able to accept that you are gay or that you don’t believe in God. They may never lose their need to try to make the world conform to their beliefs, and that may mean that it no longer makes sense for you to attend family gatherings any more. These can be hard decisions to make, but it doesn’t make sense to suppress your values to appease others.
Find the people who love what you love. They are out there, no matter how little you have in common with the mainstream. Human beings are built for loving, they just sometimes let certain aspects of their neediness get in the way of their ability to love — self-doubting would-be artists and intolerant parents alike.
This can make a huge difference to your quality of life. Moving to another household, neighborhood, city or even country is often a relatively small price to pay for a consistently higher level of self-esteem and fulfillment. People do it all the time, and they wonder how they ever got along before. For all the personal freedoms enjoyed by members of the “first world”, most of us invest too little conscious attention in creating living situations that allow us to be fully who we are, with a real sense of freedom.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of shedding self-consciousness, but it is a physical feeling with physical habit changes. It feels like there is much less that’s off-limits to you. You find yourself less attracted to the edges of rooms. You accept more invitations. You fidget less. You stop waiting for others to do the talking. You ask for things you want. You do less hoping that others will behave a certain way. You do less hoping altogether. It no longer seems necessary.
Photo by Mo Riza